Monday, January 17, 2022

Long Weekend in Yeosu on the Korean Coast

We made a last-minute decision to travel with some friends to Yeosu, a city on the south coast of Korea. I'm so glad we did, too, because I had an extremely stressful week at work and needed the vacation. We already had Monday off for Martin Luther King Jr. Day (did I mention we get local and U.S. holidays when we serve overseas?), and I had already taken Friday off as well so I could attend a virtual launch party for one of my recently accepted publications (my first-ever historical fiction short story). The Korean poem above sums up my feelings of this trip. My translation: "Since I came to travel, I am so joyful. Being together with you makes it even more so."

We left Friday afternoon and took the KTX train from Yongsan Station to Yeosu Expo Station. We hoped to take the bullet train (about 3 hours), but by the time we got to Yongsan Station to book our tickets we were told that train was standing room only. So we ended up waiting a bit and taking a 4-hour train instead. Even on that train, there were no seats left together so we sat across the aisle from each other instead. (No wonder most people book online or via app in advance!) Thankfully, the trains are spacious, clean, and comfortable so we didn't have any issues.

By the time we arrived in Yeosu it was already dark outside, but we were greeted with a beautiful display of fireworks. We couldn't figure out why there were fireworks at all, but we weren't complaining. It was a relatively short (20-minute) walk from the station to our hotel: Utop Marina. When we checked in, we were pleasantly surprised to discover our room was on the corner of one of the highest floors with two walls of windows overlooking the bay. On top of that, we got a handful of guest tickets for everything from the hotel's breakfast buffet to a 30-minute yacht ride. I was too hungry to venture far in search of food, so we tried the hotel pub and enjoyed it. M got grilled sausage and assorted fried potatoes, while I ate fresh octopus jajangmyeon (문어자장면, noodles with black bean sauce and a whole octopus on top). Let's just say we were each happy with our order.

The next day, M and I grabbed hotel breakfast, which we loved because it had everything from Froot Loops for him and rice and banchan (반찬) side dishes for me. Then, we went on a hiking date to Odongdo Island (오동도), which was a lovely walk we could do from the hotel. Since I'm in my third trimester of pregnancy, I walked slowly and took plenty of breaks but found Odongdo totally manageable. Although we didn't see a lot of the island's famous camellia blooms given the season, we enjoyed trekking down to a cave where legend has it a dragon used to live, looking out over the ocean, and breathing the rejuvenating fresh air of the forest path. The air quality in Seoul has been rough recently, which made us appreciate the clear skies in the south even more.

We met up with friends for dinner where I had naengmyeon (냉면, buckwheat noodles in cold broth) and M had three servings (!) of huge dumplings. We walked around a bit after dinner, got tasty gelato, and checked out a replica of a traditional Korean armored ship called a geobukseon, or turtle ship (거북선). Then, we went back to the hotel and watched a Korean movie in our room called The Admiral: Roaring Currents (which we rented to stream from Amazon Prime). The 2014 movie was about Admiral Yi Sun Shin, one of Korea's greatest military heroes, and the Battle of Myeongnyang where he famously defended Korea's Myeongnyang Strait against the Japanese navy despite being outnumbered by more than ten-to-one. The movie was full of drama and action, and I can easily see why it was such a commercial hit in Korea.

On Sunday, we took our yacht tour in the morning, and it was a delightful ride. It was a little chilly outside but they provided us with warm blankets and played an eclectic mix of music as we bobbed out to the sea. I always feel so calm whenever I'm out on the water (and it's not a storm, of course). After that, we split off from our friends since they wanted to find a raw, fermented crab restaurant and that is not on the menu for me (due to pregnancy) and M (due to general life preferences). So M and I found a delicious samgyeopsal (삼겹살, grilled pork belly) restaurant and ate our fill.

We met up again with our friends later for the Yeosu Maritime Cable Car. Reviews online debate over whether it's worth it to pay extra for a cable car with a glass bottom, but we did not spring for it and were grateful we didn't. We didn't feel like we missed anything in terms of the view and the line moved a lot faster.

We did take advice from a blog to take the cable car closer to the end of the day so you can ride up during sunset and ride back when it's dark, as Yeosu is lit up at night. That was a fantastic tip, as we got the best of both worlds in terms of the view and it wasn't too crowded at that time.

On Monday morning, M and I slept in and didn't want to leave our hotel and return to our normal life in Seoul! But alas, all good things must come to end so we checked out and met up with one of our friends to grab a bite to eat before taking the train back. We decided to try a "baguette burger" from a place called Yeosudang (여수당) and strawberry mochi from Yeosu Strawberry Mochi (여수딸기모찌) because we'd passed them multiple times and there were always huge lines down the street. Our friend S loved the baguette burger, which I considered much more baguette than burger. It kind of tasted like someone stuffed a baguette with coleslaw and barbecue sauce, so I didn't hate it but didn't love it. The strawberry mochi, on the other hand, was delicious and so flavorful.

We headed back to Yeosu Expo Station and grabbed the next bullet train heading back to Yongsan Station. This time, M and I booked online that morning so we could reserve seats next to each other. And we'll honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day when we get home by watching a movie (this time we're watching Amend: The Fight for America, but we also recommend 13th, Coded Bias, Dear White People, Loving, or When They See Us if you're looking to learn and feel something. We're also working on our own social justice advocacy efforts in our home state of Virginia (which has a long, long way to go to realize even a fraction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision).

Although the weekend flew by much too fast, I still feel like I needed every second of it to recover and reset for this next week. I want to end this post on a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. quote I love: "True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice." Today I'm carrying a prayer in my heart for true justice and true peace. And I wish those things for every reader of the blog, too.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

What's a D&I Council?

Folks who haven't followed developments in the Foreign Service or the Department of State in the past few years may not be familiar with Diversity & Inclusion Councils (D&I Councils). Although they may have existed in some form or another in isolation prior (perhaps with different names from post to post), the push for Department-wide D&I Councils emerged after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. Originally, they focused on addressing racial issues and anti-Black racism in particular but have since expanded to include initiatives for those who want to make the Department a more welcoming and inclusive place for all marginalized groups including not only people of color but LGBTQI+ people, people with disabilities, religious minorities, singles in the Foreign Service, women, and more.

In February 2021, D&I Councils were even more officially institutionalized at the Department of State through several things, including the establishment of the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer (CDIO) position reporting directly to the Secretary of State, the mandatory designation of one Deputy Assistant Secretary per bureau to support D&I efforts and to serve on a D&I Leadership Council, and the creation of a Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan. The Biden administration and Secretary Blinken have repeatedly emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusion in U.S. foreign policy and the federal government.

D&I Councils have become crucial fora for addressing issues when they arise, whether that is the result of current events, shifting policies, recruitment and retention issues, or discrimination. Now, most posts and offices within the Department have a D&I Council where anyone can participate. For example, Mission China established D&I Councils across Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan at the direction of their ambassador and quickly gathered over 100 volunteers. Mission Korea has its own D&I Council of which I recently became a temporary co-chair. The work we've done includes hosting open conversations on sensitive and timely topics, arranging active bystander training to interrupt bias, creating community activities that showcase and celebrate the diverse cultures and backgrounds of Mission members, advocating for increased support for and awareness of marginalized groups, and connecting with our counterparts at both other U.S. missions and other foreign missions in Korea to share best practices and collaborate whenever possible.

The Department of State and the Foreign Service in particular still have a long way to go. For instance, I recently learned that the first-ever woman of color to serve as a Regional English Language Officer (RELO), a job category that has been around for over 50 years, was hired in 2019. (She is Dr. Nabila Massoumi, and you can read more about her on the State Department website.)

At the same time, volunteering for our D&I Council has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my entire tour in South Korea because I feel we have made a difference. We've advocated for and actually changed post policies that were unintentionally excluding some members of our community. We've helped managers understand how to be more inclusive and promote equity for all their staff. We've shared important parts of diverse histories and cultures with wider audiences than would otherwise know them. And we've created a space for people regardless of rank to be a part of the positive, long-term change they want to see in the U.S. government. So if you're on the fence about getting involved with your D&I Council (or equivalent), I say go for it! There's plenty of work to do, and we need all the help we can get.

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Happy New Year! My 2022 Resolution Is...

Happy New Year, all! Pretty much everyone I know is hoping for a better 2022 than 2021, and we feel the same. Hopes were so high after the COVID-19 pandemic unleashed in 2020, but it showed no signs of abating in 2021. At least we are so grateful to be fully vaccinated and boosted and we are blessed that our families made it through safe and well so far.

Longtime readers of the blog know that I am a big fan of New Year's Resolutions. (M, not so much.) I love setting a goal that challenges me and pushes me out of my comfort zone, and I'm proud to say I pretty much achieve it every year. The time frame of one year is short enough to seem doable but long enough to help me build better long-term habits. If you saw my last post, you know that I achieved my 2021 resolution of receiving 50 rejections just in time.

This year, I'm taking a very different tack from my usual approach. I decided my 2022 New Year's Resolution will be to do less. Besides "do less" being my mantra for the next 365 days, I have a few subgoals. I want to feel less guilty when I miss self-imposed deadlines for projects and set fewer self-imposed deadlines overall. I want to unplug more when I'm on vacation, savor rest, and let go of the need to be productive every single day. I want to practice saying "no" more often to extra obligations, especially when I don't want to do something or when I'm asked to contribute unpaid labor.

One of my best friends had a hilarious reaction to my announcement of my resolution in our group chat. She said, "What are you talking about? You are literally producing a baby (#Sbitiny) this year!" I'll admit, the fact that I'm about to become a first-time mom was a huge part of my decision to pursue this resolution. Besides just being way more tired than I'm used to feeling in general, I want to make sure I enjoy every moment of parental leave that I have. I want to bond with my baby, cherish the special time with M, and not worry about projects or expectations of what I feel I should be accomplishing during that time. (I even heard some writing moms try to crank out a full novel draft during maternity leave, but I'm not interested!)

We'll see if I can pull off my unusual 2022 resolution or not. Let me know if you have a New Year's Resolution (or if you hate resolutions and they don't work for you) in the comments. Regardless of whether you have a resolution or not, I wish everyone reading this can have all they dream of and more in 2022!